Starting from Seeds: Peppers
Starting your own pepper seedling is easy!
Peppers are one of my favorite vegetables to grow! I love everything about them, from the large, sweet bell peppers like Keystone Giant, the flavor-bombs like Yellow Sweet Habanero and the hot jewels of the kitchen like Ancho Poblano.
The endless diversity of colors, sizes, shapes and flavors that a single vegetable can manifest is an ode to the wonders of biodiversity and the joys one can reap if they take the time to grow their own food. And this leads me to this little seed starting guide: if you want to grow any of the hundred of the more remarkable varieties of peppers, you will need to start them from seed. This shouldn’t scare you! Starting your own seeds is a simple task that once mastered will dramatically lower your garden’s expenses and open a whole new world of possibilities for your palate.
The good news is there are basically only 5 key component to successful pepper seed starting and once you master them, you'll never have to buy an expensive plant start ever again.
So, let’s dig into it!
Timing is everything!
So, you’ve scoured the internet till your eyes are red and itchy and you settled on a number of wonderful varieties of hot and sweet peppers for your garden. You’re absolutely itching to get them started and see those tiny, cute little seedling poking their green heads out of the ground.
But don’t start yet!
The very first step to start your pepper plants from seed indoors is to figure out when they will be transplanted outdoors. This should be about 2 weeks after your last frost date, maybe even 3 weeks in the case of hot peppers or peppers of the Chinense species like the Yellow Sweet Habanero. A cold spell in the spring, even without a frost, can result in a stunted growth and disappointing harvest weeks and months later.
I usually start my peppers 10 weeks before I plan on transplanting them outdoors, which in my Connecticut Zone 7 is around May 15th. Sometimes I’ll play with fire and set them outside during the first week of May if the plants are too large and starting to get cramped in their small pots, but I generally avoid it. There are lots of other things I can be growing and harvesting outdoors before May, like leafy greens, brassicas of all kinds and herbs like cilantro and dill.
So, jump on Google to find your last frost date and count backward 8 weeks prior. This is the date you will want to set those precious seeds in the ground.
Talk dirty to me
The large amount of commercial seed starting and potting mixes can be quite intimidating to the beginner gardener or even a more seasoned gardener.. Since soil is the base for all things in the garden, most people attach a whole lot of importance to the seed starting medium.
I always start my pepper plants in the highest quality seed starting mix I can find. I absolutely love Coast of Maine products, from their lobster composts to their potting mixes, but any other high quality mix will do. Peppers need to be grown indoors for a long period of time before they can be set out, unlike some other plants like Broccoli or Lettuces which can be quickly transplanted outside, so they will make good use of your potting mix.
I usually don’t go through the lengthy process of sifting my seed starting mix, opting instead to simply remove any large bits of material by hand, but some other gardeners swear by it. I’m just too lazy to bother and never had any problems because of it!
Pots, cups and trays
Any container at least 2 inches wide and 3 ½ inches deep will do. I’ve used anything from the cheap red disposable plastic cups to more expensive plug trays. Boostrap farmer has great quality trays and I have several of their products. I have now more or less settled on the biodegradable Cowpots, although a bit more expensive, as they allow for the roots to “breathe” better and can be buried with the transplants without disturbing those precious roots.
Put those seeds in the ground
The process is fairly simple, but it has to be said! Plant pepper seeds about 1/4th of an inch deep and cover with fine textured seed starting mix or vermiculite.
Water thoroughly, saturating the medium while allowing for drainage. Don’t over leave your seeds in stagnating water or they will rot. Cover the tray or pots with a clear plastic or glass covering to maintain the high humidity required for a good germination rate.
Use a heating mat! This is the best trick of all to increase your germination rate and the vigor of your seedling, especially for the species Chinense. It’s a small investment that will be worthwhile in the long run. I’ve reused mine for over 5 years now and they still work great!
One word of advice from someone who made the mistake herself: do not forget to label your pots! You’ll be pulling your hairs out trying to figure what that mystery pepper is right until the first fruit set!
Let there be light!
Pepper seedling require two things in abundance: heat and light. I use LED grow light for my peppers and tomatoes seedling, but a sunny window with plenty of direct sunlight works too if you rotate the pots every day so the plants grow straight. There are a lot of options as of late for LED grow lights and their prices have gone down significantly.
I don't have any particular brand to recommend, just make sure you have a full spectrum and pick the highest output you can buy. They will pay for themselves in the end.
Mine are 4 feet long and can be daisy chained. I leave them on a timer with 12 hours of light for 12 hours of darkness.
And this is it, my friends! Now you can sit back and wait patiently for those magical little leaves to gracefully pierce the ground and nurture those plants until you fill your plates with the delicious fruits of your labor!
Do you start all your pepper seedlings? Do you have any tips you’d like to share? Post a comment below and help others grow their own wonderful pepper plants in their home gardens.